Fifteen years ago, Sean Daley officially became Slug. The hip-hop-loving music store nerd released his debut album Overcast!, taking the first step toward emerging as that era's most successful underground rapper: Atmosphere.
Shut out of the mainstream by gangsta rap, acts like Atmosphere formed their own scenes and their own sense of "real." Instead of trite theatrical cops-and-robbers melodramas, their songs were heady, odd and somewhat insular. The scene was led by artists with idiosyncratic visions: Aesop Rock's florid rhymes, Cage's surreal nightmare visions, Sage Francis' biting wit or Talib Kweli's Corinthian leather flow.
By the mid-2000s, the indie rap or "backpacker" community had fallen off. But while Definitive Jux--the label that housed much of the East Coast underground--was closing, Atmosphere and his label, Rhymesayers, were gathering steam.
Atmosphere redefined himself by adding a live band (alternating sets with his touring DJ), which attracted numerous late-to-the-party followers. These days, he's sitting pretty--not on a big pile of cash, though he probably does OK--but on a legacy he's proud of and a growing maturity, which was evident on last year's very personal album, The Family Sign.
"I shudder to think that we, by any means, were lucky enough to be a part of a movement or a scene," Daley said. "When I started the band, it wasn't like I was trying to go, 'Oh, I gotta get out of this before the backpackers dry up.'"
But the effect was the same. His peers had begun losing themselves in idiosyncratic cocoons woven in thick strands of verse. Slug swore off the self-consciously weird in favor of stories and big-picture meditations. Once described as "emo-rap" for his self-indicting bare-wire honesty, his songs turned more thoughtful and story-based.
But it was really just circumstance, Daley explained. He wasn't special, just a little old for his class.
"All those dudes I came up with in '97 [Aesop Rock, Sage Francis], they were all 20-22. I was 25 already. It was more like life trends. At 27, it was time for me not to be weird anymore; or at 32, it was time for me to start writing stories. It's just like all these other dudes will when they hit that time in their life," he said.
Daley admits that since the 15th anniversary of his debut release, he's been thinking a lot about the past and how far he's come. He's created seven albums, eight EPs and a successful hip-hop label. He also got married and had a baby around the time he was recording The Family Sign.
And reinforcing life's yin and yang, while Daley was bringing a new life into the world, one close to him was checking out. Michael Larsen, aka Eyedea, died in his sleep in October 2010 from opiate toxicity at the age of 28, casting a dark pall over Daley's recent happiness.
"We were very close. I would say the bond I have with him was either older sibling-ish or even parental," Daley said. "He was 10 years my junior, so when I was touring with him, he was only 17. So me and his mom became friends. ... I can't compare it to anything else other than when my father passed."
And the pitched emotions of the time come through in his songs, making The Family Sign particularly personal--even for a guy whose sound was once described as "emo-rap." You hear it on songs like "Became," where he chases his absent friend's footsteps into the cold woods, where he's lost to the wolves. Or the commitment ode, "She's Enough," which passionately reps the object of his affection. But the most powerful track, hands-down, is the unblinking "The Last to Say," where Slug's matter-of-fact narration only makes the story of domestic abuse more horrific.
Daley said that track and others might never have happened were it not for his wife's pregnancy. To be near her and the baby, Daley did much of his writing at home rather than at the side of longtime DJ/producer, Anthony Davis, aka Ant. While Ant is the man behind Atmosphere's music, his non-verbal cues have stayed Slug's hand in the past when things in the lyrics got too personal. This time, that wasn't the case.
"Maybe three to four bars into it, he might've given me a look that intimidated me and made me not want to write it anymore," said Daley. "Whereas he didn't get that chance, so his first time hearing it ... he heard the whole song, and it was like, 'Yeah, this is right.'"
As Daley crests another milestone--he recently turned 40--he's operating by a new mantra: focus on the upside, not the downside. He's intent on not giving life's unsettling, demoralizing side so much power.
"It's funny, I was already heading in that direction. ... That's what played into the decision of me going, 'You know what? Let's try to have a kid and let's set a date and get married.' ... Once we went ahead and did it, it was like my muscles were ready. I had already done the warm-up. So when it was time to jump in, I was able to jump in and start writing about it."
But the question is whether the music Atmosphere makes is even hip-hop anymore. Sure, he still raps, but from Ant's increasingly rock-inflected production to the tone and spirit of the lyrics, Atmosphere's music feels different.
"Maybe I am 1998 hip-hop. You know? Because ... today's hip-hop sounds different. It's like Clams Casino, as far as production style right now. Whatever Danny Brown's rapping over," he said. "We had our time. I'm not trying to shuck the responsibility of still representing what I believe in, by any means. But I can't get old and become one of these bitter dudes that says things like, 'You kids don't know what you're talking about.' Because I remember when they said that shit to me.
"I guess I'm taking a long way to say I'm trying to stay humble. Let's be honest, nothing is promised. It's a crazy world we live in, so I'm really trying to do the day-to-day as much as possible, and enjoy as much of my time as possible because life is fragile and short."[ Video is no longer available. ]